I wonder why Dr. Paranavithana was not awarded the Nobel Prize – Sirisaman Wijethunge, ex-Assistant Director of Archaeology | Sunday Observer

I wonder why Dr. Paranavithana was not awarded the Nobel Prize – Sirisaman Wijethunge, ex-Assistant Director of Archaeology

3 October, 2021

The great historian archaeologist Dr. Senarath Paranavithana’s 49th death anniversary falls on tomorrow, (4 October). During the 75 years of his life time, Dr. Paranavithana produced eight major books including groundbreaking ‘Sigiri Graffit’ published in two folio volumes by Oxford University Press which made the ‘Sigiriya’ a world heritage.

He also launched another two folio volumes as ‘Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol I and 11’ which was an archaeological survey of Ceylon. According to late veteran journalist D.B. Dhanapala, Paranavithana is “More an epigraphist than an archaeologist, more an expert in consenescence than in conservation, more a self-taught scholar than a trained scientist.”

Paranavithana combined in himself all that was necessary to make a great pioneer. The Sunday Observer spoke to Sirisaman Wijethunge, an ex-Assistant Director of Archaeology and a veteran writer on Dr. Paranavithana, to discuss this great archaeologist’s life and some of his services to the country.

Q: In your view, what is the greatest service of Dr. Paranavithana?

A: Here, I quote Senaka Bandaranayake, a Professor of archaeology, who is my teacher as well. He says that “Any scientist, through his works, does not conclude anything, but expands our contemporary understanding and get us forward. Dr. Paranavithana scientifically did this like a giant.” I think Prof. Bandaranayake is quite right on this. Dr. Paranavithana is the one who showed us the value of Sinhalese civilization archaeologically. During the past regime, we were even afraid to say that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. Paranavithana pointed out with solid archaeological basis that this country is based on Sinhala Buddhist culture.

For instance, he found an ancient deed called Vallipuram Ran Sannasa (Vallipuram Gold Plate) from Jaffna City, which was written by a courtier of King Wasabha in 2nd century AD. Through this, Paranavithana describes that Sri Lanka is a unitary country right from the outset. Of course, we are one family living together with Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, but the foundation of it is made from Sinhala Buddhist culture. Not only Sinhalese, but also Tamils and Muslims should accept this fact, because citizens in this country have a moral obligation to identify their own roots, their own civilization.

Q: As we all know, ‘Sigiri Graffiti’ is his magnum opus. How do you see it?

A: Dr. Paranavithana worked at the Department of Archaeology for 33 years. When he retired in 1956, he had completed this volume (two folio volumes). There are 685 Kurutu Gees or graffiti in this book. All those were copied from the Mirror Wall and defined by him in his work. It was, indeed, a painstaking task that took years to complete. In writing this book, he had to stay at a small place called Pol Athu Bangalawa (a house sheltered with coconut leaves) below the Sigiri rock – I also stayed in this ‘bungalow’ when I visited Sigiriya.

Do you know that he had to climb over the Sigiri rock from the foot of cliff at least two times a day to carry out this grand task? In the end, he could complete the book, and it was published by the Oxford University Press. Here, my question is why it was not accepted as a high level literary accomplishment adequate enough to award the Nobel Prize? These graffiti include songs by people from 1500 years back; they embody the letters of our ancestors. If the book was published by such world academia, why did the Nobel Committee disqualify his book for the Nobel Prize? This question still baffles me.

Q: You are a great admirer of Paranavithana and Sigiriya. How did that happen?

A: Dr. Paranavithana was a giant for us ever since we were schooling: we learned his works at the school. Then, at the University of Peradeniya I was able to talk to him and hear his speeches. Next, when I started to read his books and articles, the admiration developed in me.

In the case of Sigiriya, I am a person from Dambadeniya, a place of ancient Kingdom, somewhat close to Sigiriya, and thus I often visited Sigiriya. But the person who first kindled my interest in Sigiriya was Milton Kumaranayake, a teacher from Wadakada Maha Vidyalaya. Kumaranayake was also the younger brother of Indra Kumaranayake, wife of prominent poet P.B. Alvis Perera. I remember, he wrote some of Sigiri graffiti at the black board and taught them us. Kumaranayake was an erudite who had immense knowledge about any subject.

In fact, I got through the Advanced Level examination thanks to the teachers like Milton Kumaranayake. Next person who developed my interest towards Sigiriya and Paranavithana as well, was Prof. Abhaya Ariyasinghe, another scholar. He had learned at the foot of Dr. Paranavithana, I learned at the foot of him.

Q: Have you associated with Dr. Senerath Paranavithana intimately?

A: No, I haven’t. As I said earlier, Prof. Paranavithana – at the time he was a Professor – came to lectures at the University of Peradeniya. This was in 1965 and that was my first year. Unfortunately, he stopped coming to the University after that year. So, my association with him was very little. But on one occasion or two, I went to meet him while he was at Colombo.

Q: How did Dr. Paranavithana enrolled as a lecturer at the University of Peradeniya when he never entered a university as an undergraduate?

A: The University Senate and the Vice Chancellor, then Sir Nicholas Attygalle, unanimously decided to bring Paranavithana to the University, because they had an idea to begin an archaeological unit in it. Besides, he was a qualified man at the time: he received a Ph.D. degree in 1936 from the University of Leiden, Netherland for his scholarly work titled ‘Stüpa in Ceylon’. And also, he was the appointed Archaeological Commissioner at the time. Hence, he was enrolled as a lecturer to the University without any hesitation, and after beginning his teaching at the campus, he started the Archaeological Unit in it which was the first that type of unit in the university system in Sri Lanka. Here, I should mention that my teacher late Prof. Abhaya Ariyasinghe was one of many students from this unit in Peradeniya.

Q: Dr. Paranavithana contributed to newspapers and scholarly journals extensively, while researching in various archaeological sites and also working as an administrator as well?

A: He was a friend of journalists. Vithana from Lankadeepa was his best journalist friend as far as I know. And Dr. Paranavithana was also a ‘news creator’, so journalists flocked around him to find news from him. He also enjoyed giving news and articles to the papers.

Q: You said you have talked to Dr. Paranavithana. What type of person was he?

A: He was not a big man. He was small, not much tall and fat. Though he wore the tie – coat full suit, he was simple villager-type man. D.B. Dhanapala, in his article on Paranavithana in the book ‘Among Those Present’, says, “He looks like a Perera or Silva or, may be, even a Fernando. There is something as common as a comma or semi-colon at best about him. There is nothing distinctive to mark him out from the crowd.”

When he got ready to do something he was never late, he was quick and punctual. And he had very humanistic qualities as well: when he was working as the Archaeological Commissioner, he kept a cat inside the library of the Archaeological department, because he was reluctant to use poison for rats in it. He always thought about others when embarking on to do something.

And he was never in search of publicity or limelight. He didn’t follow politicians or influential people as well. On the contrary, he turned to normal people, minor staff members. He was very intimate with his staff. They also loved him very much.

He never sought any privileges from his superiors in his life time. He only focused on his duty and his research work. He loved his workplace too. Thus, he naturally became an example to others, not by words, but by deeds.

And he was always keen on to help others, especially newcomers. When he went to archaeological sites, he accompanied suitable people. He only considered their skills and talents, not their age or seniority. If one had a super eye to read the epigraphs, he unconditionally supported him. Therefore, there were people among his fellow assistants who could speak about inscriptions deeply.

Do you know that I worship him when I worship the statue of Lord Buddha at my little shrine in my house? I got built a little statue of him by Gunathilake who created the statue of Paranavithana at Sigiriya. I do this because of his great qualities and immense service to this country.

Q: Do you know about the obstacles that he had to face when he was carrying out his duties, especially exploring archaeological sites?

A: No, I don’t really know about them. But I got to know one thing, that former Minister of Education C.W.W. Kannangara strived to help him to continue his excavations and other scholarly works without any trouble. I don’t know the two had any mutual understanding, but it seems that they respected each other.

Q: Why didn’t you compile a book with him when he was alive?

A: Who am I to write a book with him? I was tiny in relation to him.

Q: You could have compiled a book by interviewing him. Or written a book about his scholarly work?

A: No, I hadn’t many chances to meet him or interview him. At that time, I was not working at the Department of Archaeology, but, at the Department of Statistics. I came to Archaeological Department in 1982, ten years after his demise.

Q: Have you used his library? he should have a big personal library?

A: He had a good collection of books, but all of them got lost. You know, Dr. Paranavithana hadn’t any children, his wife also died before his death. So, there wasn’t any responsible person to keep his valuable items. At first, there was a request from the Archaeological Department to acquire those books. But then it was rejected by some officers of the Department, because all the books under the charge of the late Commissioner were already at the Department. Anyway, all his books got lost. It is said that they were burned by some people when they were kept in another place by someone else. Fortunately, we have most of his other items including spectacles, pen, ink bottle, etc. They were at the charge of Department of Public Trustee.

Q: Do you think we have his unpublished writings?

A: As far as I know, all the writings by him are published, but there are many radio talks he gave. As we have the recordings of them, we can transcript them and publish as books. Hudson Samarasinghe, the new Chairman of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation is also keen to publish them. So, now I am trying to venture that project.